Robert Kent (center), Laura Dengler and her son in-law, Joe Smock, set up the vacuum system in the woods.
Photos courtesy of Laura Dengler.
Each year, the Northwest Pennsylvania Maple Syrup Producers Association has a Taste & Tour, and this past March some 975 people attended the two-day open house at How Sweet It Is, Laura Dengler's operation in Saegertown. Seventeen family members and friends helped oversee children's crafts, greet people, pass out samples and sell maple products. Half of Dengler's annual sales come in these two days.
Two years ago, when she first offered a kids' tent and activities as part of the tour, her sister, Nancy Armstrong, made tree-shaped cookies into necklaces. Some were shaped like maple leaves. Dengler used hers as a nametag that read "Mother Maple." That's how she's been known since she got back into the sugaring business in 2008.
Since a successful sugaring season is always dependent on Mother Nature, Dengler, who has been making syrup for 37 years, figures the nickname is wordplay too.
"I never really put the two together - Mother Maple and Mother Nature - until now," she said.
Dengler grew up on a farm with chickens, cows, pigs and plenty of sugar maple trees that they let the neighbors tap. She knew sugaring was a form of agriculture, but both her parents worked off the farm and never took advantage of the trees on their property.
After she married Chris Dengler, they built their first evaporator, then bought a 2-by-6-foot evaporator and then a 3-by-8-foot one. Dengler's Maple Products, also in Saegertown, thrived for many years. Chris kept the business after they separated in 2004; a year later he was in a car accident that ultimately led to the cessation of the sugaring operation.
Dengler took the first opportunity she could to launch her own maple operation. "I had a passion to continue making maple syrup and maple products, and educating the public on the sugaring process," she explained.
Before he passed away, Laura Dengler's dad, Frank Humes, always helped her in the woods.
Starting from scratch
At first she was happy just to be able to purchase sap buckets - 50 of them. For the first couple of years, she used her daughter's truck to haul sap to a neighboring sugarhouse to boil it. Then she met Robert Kent, a companion and business partner who helped her build what they have today.
"He's definitely helped me financially," Dengler said. "I would have to really cut down [on production] if it wasn't for his help. But the thing with maple sugaring, it's like a bug you get. If you enjoy doing it, you want to grow with it."
It took them one and a half years to build the new sugarhouse, and the evaporator they ordered didn't arrive until the third week of February. So for the first year of production they emptied a two-car garage, put three holes in the roof (one for the chimney and two for steam hoods), and made 198 gallons of maple syrup. That was March 2009. The following year, How Sweet It Is was operating out of the new sugarhouse.
Today, they have a fully equipped, 24-by-40-foot sugarhouse with a storefront at the farm, also known as How Sweet It Is. They use a 3-by-8-foot wood-fired CDL evaporator and a 1972 Springtech reverse osmosis machine with an automatic takeoff. A Dominion & Grimm pressure filter is used to filter the syrup before canning.
"Our equipment is just the right size," Dengler said.
A difficult season
In a typical year, she has 1,100 taps with both buckets and a tubing system on leased trees (except for four trees she owns). For the leased trees, rent is paid with a combination of syrup and money.
However, this past year, dental surgery in early February set her back, and the long winter was a big factor. She ended up with only 556 taps - 120 buckets and 436 taps on vacuum tubing.
"We usually tap in northwest Pennsylvania in the middle of February and are usually always in production by President's Day," Dengler noted. "We did not tap this year until the first of March, and had several small runs toward the end of the season."
The best run was on March 31, but it was the same day her father, Frank Humes, passed away. Dengler dedicated the season to him. "He was a good man," she said. "He always helped me in the woods."
Several family members and friends offered to gather for her, but she said, "Dad would want me to be in the woods gathering and enjoying what I liked to do - and it was the best therapy for me."
How Sweet It Is sugarhouse in Saegertown, Pennsylvania.
They tap the neighbors' trees, and 400 trees on a brother-in-law's property are set up on a vacuum tubing system run by a gas-powered pump. Next fall, they're planning to set up a similar system with another 300 to 400 taps.
Dengler said, "Both my parents said I had to have been dropped on my head to want to do all this work. I truly can say I love to make maple syrup. What a wonderful time to be in the woods. One of my favorite sayings is: Sugaring isn't just for the product; it's about spending time with your surroundings and listening to your environment."
How Sweet It Is maintained a stand at the Meadville Market House for three years before moving all operations to the farm. There are no set hours at the farm store, but products are available there year-round.
The farm also has a presence at about a half-dozen country fairs and festivals during the year, selling maple apple dumplings, maple sundaes and other maple products.
Laura Dengler, aka Mother Maple, gets ready to fire up the evaporator.
Dengler makes maple candy, maple sugar, maple cream, maple-coated nuts and pretzels, maple cotton candy, maple mustards and maple barbecue sauce. She also makes maple products for other local sugarhouses, which was the genesis of the moniker Mother Maple.
"One friend placed an order, and so I said, 'Give me a few days to get it done.' She began telling others that if you really needed to get something done, you have to go to Mother Maple. It makes me proud. I take a lot of pride in what I do, and it shows in all the prizes we've won," Dengler said.
How Sweet It Is won Best of Show at the 2013 Crawford County Fair with its light amber syrup, and at the 2014 Pennsylvania Farm Show it won the Best Collective Exhibit and Best Exhibitor plaques.
Learning and sharing
"During the maple tour, I always get a lot of questions, but everyone always wants to know how I became so knowledgeable," Dengler said. "It's just the love of it. I go to a lot of seminars. Sometimes I'm the only woman there. I'll ask 50 questions, and the guys all look at me, but that's how I learn."
Laura Dengler hangs buckets at the start of sugaring season.
It's also a trade that she doesn't mind sharing and teaching. Dengler, who is 54, works full-time for the Crawford County Conservation District as an administrative assistant, but she also does backyard sugaring classes with Crawford County forester Mark Lewis in the spring.
"I'm always glad to have groups come to the sugarhouse, where you can learn how the Native American Indians discovered making maple syrup, and how they taught the early settlers and influenced the modern-day sugaring process," she said.
People even ask if she's afraid that those she teaches will steal some of her business.
"As much maple syrup as we make around here, we don't have any trouble getting rid of it," Dengler said. "We don't step on each other's toes, and we don't try to price-cut each other. I'm usually an open book, because my fear is that this is becoming a dying art. I usually don't keep secrets, because we're never sure what time will bring us, and if I work to share it now - even with one kid who wants to go out and tap trees - then one day I will live to hear somebody say, 'I learned from Mother Maple.'"
The author has been published in national and regional magazines as well as daily and weekly alternative city newspapers. A gentleman farmer in Quakertown, Pennsylvania, he writes about people, social trends, historic preservation and 18th-century America, agrarian culture, land use, and sports and recreation topics.